When I arrived at the Soulsville Town Center for a guided tour with Hollywood film director-turned-philanthropist Tom Shadyac, a man whose name is now as synonymous with Memphis as it is with his film Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Shadayac was standing in the sprinkling rain and speaking to a smiling World War II veteran who lost his legs and was in a wheelchair.
Minutes later, Shadyac shared that moment with a group of about 20 attendees at the High Ground News-sponsored tour to communicate the ideology behind One Family Memphis, the nonprofit organization that will head the revitalization of the long-vacant Town Center and, as Shadyac says, "the healing of the blighted Soulsville community."
"Everything you see today will be what you can afford," said Shadyac, whose father Richard Shadyac Sr. helped found St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. "No one will be turned away from our services regardless of their ability to pay. Everyone will participate as a family member. Whatever you have to offer, you will offer, even if it's just a smile. I was just with a gentleman named Calvin, who lives in the neighborhood. He lost his legs. Calvin will come and [work as] a greeter, if that's his gift. He'll get to use whatever services we have."
Since Shadyac purchased the bankrupt Town Center at auction last August for a $3.2 million, residents have asked one question: What's he going to do with more than 79,000 square feet of vacant space?
Phase one will kick off fund-raising and include construction of a cutting-edge climbing gym, a pay-it-forward coffee shop and restaurant, a farmers market and green space with potential garden access, and a 350- to 450-seat film and performing arts theater. Construction will begin over the summer.
"This is a very ambitious project. Just like when Danny Thomas said no child should die in the dawn of life, that was a very ambitious project," says Michael Drake, a One Family board member. "St. Jude Children's Research Hospital has ALSAC, the fund-raising arm. God put it on my heart that One Family Memphis will have a fund-raising arm as well."
Shadyac bases his vision for One Family on the hospital his father helped found and where his brother, Richard, is the current CEO of the fund-raising arm ALSAC.
"If you could have been at St. Jude 50 years ago, and a Lebanese comic tells you he was going to treat kids of all colors, races, creeds, and religions for free in 1950, you would have said 'You're crazy, it can't work,'" Shadyac said. "It not only works, it's the most trusted charity in America. We are moving forward with that same ethos."
A state-of-the-art climbing gym will be built in the 26,500 square feet that was formerly designated for "the Whole Foods that never came," Shadyac said (Town Center was originally built to house a grocery store). Part of the roof will be raised 45 to 50 feet for a high-climbing wall, while a 15-foot bouldering section will allow people to climb untied. A juice bar and flex-space for yoga, dance, meditation, weightlifting, and cardio will overlook the gym.
"A climbing gym is just an access point to a conversation with the youth to access their challenges, hopes, and dreams ... which is what generational poverty doesn't allow. We are going to tell them they are loved, they are cared for, and they can begin to dream again."
One Family's pay-it-forward, farm-to-table restaurant will be based on Jon Bon Jovi's Soul Kitchen — a possible partner in the project. The economic model is simple. Each item costs $10. If customers can afford that, they'll pay $20 and cover someone else's meal. If not, they volunteer for one hour by working in the kitchen, serving, or working in the garden.
"You can feed a family of five with that one hour of service," Drake said.
Shadyac said he wanted to give the young musicians at nearby Stax Academy a performance space, which spawned the plan for the theater.
"We're not only going to engage with the kids across the street [at Stax Academy], but we're also going to bring TED Talks," Shadyac said. "We're going to bring our own talks — Soul Talks. We're going to use recreation, art, and theater to bring a conversation and a sense of family to this community that will spread to the city, the state, and we hope to the nation and the world. We think big here."